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Can conservation save us?

Leaders in the Pacific Northwest have announced they’re going to supply increases in energy demand over the next 20 years mostly through conservation.  Here’s hoping they succeed but doubting they will.  Electric demand has grown significantly in the past dozen or so years, and forecasts are that it will continue to do so.

Year – – – – Net GWH
2008  – – – 4,119,388
1997 – – –  3,492,172

These stats are from the Energy Information Administration and show an increase of about 18 percent over this time frame.  On an annual basis, you could almost argue that it’s possible for conservation to offset demand growth by 1.5 percent per year, thus keeping total energy consumption flat.

On a cumulative basis, however, the proportions of the problem become clear.  The difference in power consumption between 1997 and 2008 was  627,000 GHW.  At an average service factor for each power plant of 7000 hours per year (a reasonable figure for planning), that amount of power is the rough equivalent of 99 nuclear reactors.  To give you some sense of scale, there are only 103 operating reactors in the United States.  Conservation is unlikely to produce a similar sized reduction in electric demand over the long haul.  If you try to manage the power business like that, you’ll regret it.

There are two potential pitfalls of over-reliance on conservation.  The first is that the public might get a case of temporary religion.  Suppose the prophets of green preached conservation with such fervor that power demand actually declined for a few years.  The utilities would revise their forecasts, cancel new construction plans, and everybody would be blissful.  But then suppose the economy turns around strongly; the newly prosperous workers forget their green religion and all build bigger homes with brighter lights and more doodads that plug in.  The region could quickly find itself unable to meet demand, and the utility would have no choice but to do some blackouts on days of peak demand.

The second pitfall is that part of the sales pitch for conservation is that it eliminates the need for new construction of big power plants.  But while that plays well trilling across the silver tongues of populist politicians, it does nothing to replace aging plants that are already 40, 50, even 60 years old.  And replacing big baseload power plants is enormously capital-intensive.  You can’t get something for nothing, not even if the government says you can.  Conservation can help manage growth a little bit, but if unlearned politicians use it as an excuse to shut off the capital flow to the utilities, there’ll be plenty of darkness to spread around in just a few years.

I’m all for conservation and efficiency.  By all means, insulate your attic.  Turn off the lights.  Use higher efficiency bulbs.  Don’t let the kids gaze entranced into the open refrigerator.  But let’s not get the idea that these efforts can excuse us from the efforts of good utility management.  Whether you’re replacing old plants or meeting the power needs of a burgeoning economy, you’re eventually going to need power plants built.

























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